By Aayesha Hassan (MRes. Ph.D.)
The substantial commitment, endurance and continual focused learning required to successfully complete a PhD more than often results in challenging life experiences which affect the emotional and physical health of the doctoral candidate. However, by combining a generous heap of enthusiasm with effective time management and a disciplined mind, balanced by essential self-care, its bound to be a formula for success.
Having carefully considered the above, I’d like you to add the demands and responsibilities that accompany raising a child single-handedly. Albeit being the most challenging excerpt in my academic journey, this experience highlighted the significance of a PhD and life balance, enabling me to re-write and optimise this ‘formula for success’, to one which accommodated my individual needs as ‘student-parent’.
As parents, we often forget the importance of consulting our children and ensuring that their feelings are acknowledged, especially in matters which will directly affect their lives. In 2013, I embarked on a 4-year journey of pursuing my PhD in immunology; a decision I made together with my son. In our family of two I have continually strived to build a partnership, one where any career investments are made as joint-decisions, based on their benefit to us as a unit. A collaborative effort which I believe enabled me to not only succeed as a single parent, but also raise a confident, well-mannered, bright young scientist. That said, I am often asked what my secret is – managing dynamic sectors of laboratory research, independent study whilst navigating the tricky role of being a ‘mum’. This is a fundamental issue young parent’s encounter today, one which requires an equally well-informed approach before committing 4-5 years of your life to a Doctorate. With this in mind, I will attempt to tackle key obstacles faced, through defining moments in my life; experiences which have contributed significantly towards shaping the individual I am today.
1. Stop! Revisit and Revise.
In pursuit of my PhD we moved to a new city, a new school, this meant we had no family or friends to lean on for support (which usually is the case for many single parents). Determined, I set out on this new chapter, resolved to make it the best one yet, but nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of emotional challenges. As a single parent, every minute I spent away added to a mental anchor weighing me down with the knowledge of the time I could have otherwise spent with my son. Rationally I reminded myself -Research has shown a strong role model sets up children for success- but instead I became emotionally distressed and consumed by thoughts of being a ‘bad parent’. Excessive guilt resulted in making me downright unproductive, short-tempered and unhappy.
I learned that by simply stopping I could identify what it is I needed to move on from this phase and be the woman I was desperately striving to become. Sometimes all we need to do is revisit our goals and revise our programme. I forgot that working is essentially a fulfilling part in my life -stressful yes- but nonetheless rewarding. I realised that by me apologising profusely for using child care services or being away at work in general was in fact communicating all sorts of confusing messages to my son. I had to communicate that this PhD was not only mine; it was ours. This new unapologetic attitude I took changed our lives for the better, my son would prioritise the PhD work over his own ‘fun-time’. He wasn’t angry or disappointed – as I had anticipated – instead he would be the one to encourage me. This was a milestone in our journey.
I cannot stress enough how crucial it is that you invest in the future of your children. In our family, my success was never deemed ‘more important’. So much so that we set up a time-table, where we would come together and spend time on his interests. This instilled a sense of importance, confidence and maturity in my son. I struck gold with a child who loves science as much as I do, but having won British Science Week, I not only encouraged his taking part but dedicated many hours to helping him achieve success. Numerous library trips, collecting material, analysing data, building…these experiences are but a few of many which bonded us as ‘students working together’.
As a result, I now have a 9-year-old who is more mature than I was at 20 and wants to pursue his own PhD in ‘black holes and what happens when the universe dies’.
1st place – Diabetes and Glucose Homeostasis
British Science Week, Nottingham, 2017
3. Live to fight another day.
Experiments didn’t work? Check. Work piling up? Check. Childcare closed? Check. Deadlines due? Check…and the list goes on. Some days it really is better to give up.
To paraphrase Demosthenes – live to fight another day.
I was prepared for the steep learning curve and stress that comes with a PhD; however, as parents we need to understand that stress, if left unchecked, can become very destructive. During my first year, with the novelty of beginning my research I worked myself to the point where I ignored my own health. School runs, long days in the laboratory, staying behind to analyse data, house-chores and working until the early hours in the morning…. at some point, something was going to give. For me, waking up in a hospital bed with an intravenous antibiotic drip for ‘sepsis’ gave me the reality check I needed. This experience highlighted how important it is to prioritise your health as a parent-doctoral researcher and find that PHD-LIFE BALANCE! Not only must you manage the pressure of a Doctorate, but also the responsibility of raising a human being. Nothing is worth your health, and that is when I learned; ‘When life gives you lemons, yes make lemonade, but please take some time off to drink it!’
I understand that every child, their needs and dynamics within each family varies from one to the other. However, I can confidently say that by (a) eliminating the guilt of work; (b) working together with my son; (c) taking care of my physical and mental health, I was able to maintain my sanity, complete a PhD and thoroughly enjoy motherhood during one of the most challenging journeys in my life.
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